A look at qualifying in TN legislative campaigns

Seven incumbent Republican state senators and 30 GOP state representatives were virtually assured of re-election last week when no opponent filed a petition to run against them in either the August primary or the November general election.

On the other side of the partisan coin, 13 Democratic incumbent representatives face no challenge to re-election from within their own party or from a Republican. That includes Knoxville’s Rep. Joe Armstrong, who is facing trial on federal tax evasion charges — though Armstrong does have a general election opponent in perennial candidate Pete Drew, who is running as an Independent again this year.

In the Senate, only one of the 16 seats up for election this year is held by a Democrat — Sen. Sara Kyle of Memphis. She faces a primary challenge from former Sen. Beverley Marrero, also of Memphis. No Republican is seeking that seat.

The seven Senate seats where Republican incumbents are assured of re-election are held by Sens. Becky Duncan Massey of Knoxville, Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains, Ken Yager of Kingston, Ferrell Haile of Gallatin, Joey Hensley of Hohenwald, John Stevens of Huntingdon, and Mark Norris Collierville.

One of the more prominent Republican-held Senate spots in play is the 4th District 4 seat being vacated by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. State Rep. Jon Lundberg of Bristol and former state Rep. Tony Shipley of Kingsport are among four Republicans vying for the party nomination to succeed him.

In East Tennessee, Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, faces a primary challenge from Scott P. Williams, also of Maryville, but no Democrat filed in the 2nd Senate District. Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, faces no GOP opposition but finds three Democrats competing in August for the right to oppose him in November.

Elsewhere in the state, Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham of Somerville faces a Republican primary challenger, while incumbent Republican Sens. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville, Janice Bowling of Tullahoma, Steve Dickerson of Nashville and Mark Green of Clarksville face opposition in both primary and general elections.

The lineup of contests in the Senate guarantees that Republicans will continue to hold at least 23 seats after the November elections — enough to still be considered a “super majority,” which is more than two-thirds the total seats. They hold 13 of the seats that are not up for election this year and 10 where no Democrat is running this year. Currently, Republicans hold a 28-5 advantage in the Senate.

House races

In the House, a flood of Democratic candidate filings has created at least the theoretical possibility of that party gaining a majority in November.

“They literally came out of the woodwork,” said state Democratic Chairman Mary Mancini, referring in an interview to members of her party who filed qualifying papers for legislative seats. She credits the outpouring to voters “sick and tired” of GOP legislative leadership, including rejection of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan for Medicaid expansion, the handling of Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham’s alleged sexual harassment and a possible “trickle down” effect from voter distaste for the party’s leading presidential candidates.

Democrats have filed qualifying petitions in at least 41 House seats now held by Republicans. Coupled with the 17 seats now held by Democrats where no Republican has qualified, that means Democrats — if they won every contest and lost none of the seats where Republicans are running in seats now held by Democrats — could conceivably have 58 seats in the House. Republicans now hold 73-26 majority and to maintain super majority status, or two-thirds, need 66 seats.

Republicans, of course, scoff at such a notion with considerable justification. The way House district lines are drawn, only a handful of districts are rated as competitive between the parties; the rest are aligned to assure that voters are either strongly inclined toward one party or the other and since Republicans drew the lines, most are GOP oriented and Democrats challenging Republicans are extreme underdogs.

money matters

In campaign financing, Republicans also enjoy a huge advantage.

A review by The Tennessean found that incumbent Republican legislators at last report have $9.4 million in their campaign accounts versus $849,000 held in Democratic legislators’ accounts. Republican-oriented political action committees — some maintained by Republican legislators — also have stashed large amounts of cash ready for use in this year’s campaigns.

One notable example, House Speaker Beth Harwell, has more than $600,000 in her personal campaign account and about the same in her PAC. Two Democrats are competing for the chance to oppose her re-election in November in the 56th House District: Chris Moth, who in 2014 lost to Harwell by almost a 2-to-1 margin; and Sydney Rogers, who was among 23 Democratic women challenging incumbent Democrats supported by a PAC called Women for Tennessee’s Future at a news conference last week.

Both Rogers and Moth apparently begin their campaigns with no money in the bank, according to filings with the Registry of Election Finance. Women for Tennessee’s Future PAC reported $5,540 cash on hand in its most recent financial disclosure.

enemy from within

As a political reality, more Republican incumbents are thus worried about intraparty challenges than about Democrats.

In East Tennessee, Republicans with no worries about opposition from either side of the partisan aisle include Reps. Timothy Hill of Bluff City, Art Swann of Maryville, Tilman Goins of Morristown, Dale Carr of Sevierville, Bill Dunn of Knoxville, Harry Brooks of Knoxville, Andrew Farmer of Sevierville, Bob Ramsey of Maryville, John Forgety of Athens and Kevin Brooks of Cleveland. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga also has no opponent to re-election.

East Tennessee incumbent House Republicans with only primary opposition include Reps. John Holsclaw of Elizabethton, David Hawk of Greeneville, Mike Carter of Ooltewah, Ron Travis of Dayton and Jerry Sexton of Bean Station.

Rep. Martin Daniel of Knoxville faces three Republican challengers — former Rep. Steve Hall, who lost to Daniel in a close 2014 contest; Bryan Dodson, who worked for former Sen. Stacey Campfield both as a legislative staffer and a campaign organizer; and lawyer James Corcoran. The primary winner will face Democrat Brandi Price.

Other East Tennessee Republican House incumbent facing both primary and general election opponents include Reps. Jeremy Faison of Cosby, John Ragan of Oak Ridge, Kelly Keisling of Byrdstown and David Alexander of Winchester.

Knoxville Republican Reps. Eddie Smith, Roger Kane and Jason Zachary face no intraparty opponents but have Democrats running against them in November. In Smith’s case, that is former Rep. Gloria Johnson who in 2014 narrowly lost to him in the 13th House District, one of the few district rated as competitive between the two parties. Zachary will face Democrat Scott Hacker, while Kane will face Democrat Heather C. Hensley. All three Knox County Democrats have no primary opponents.

Other East Tennessee Republican incumbents without primary opposition but with Democratic challengers waiting in the wings include Reps. Bud Hulsey of Kingsport, Micah Van Huss of Gray, Jimmy Matlock of Lenoir City, Dan Howell of Georgetown, Cameron Sexton of Crossville, Patsy Hazelwood of Signal Mountain, Mark Gravitt of East Ridge, Kent Calfee of Kingston and Dennis Powers of Jacksboro.

Other House races that have developed include:

In the 1st District, being vacated by Lundberg in his run for the state Senate, no Democrat has filed while Sullivan County Commissioner John Crawford is running against Chad Keen of Bristol for the GOP nomination.

Democratic House incumbents facing Republican challenges include Rep. John Mark Windle of Livingston, Kevin Dunlap of Rock Island and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley. Dunlap and Windle hold districts that are considered somewhat competitive; Fitzhugh is in a West Tennessee district that leans Democratic.

Perhaps the best chance of a Republican winning a Democratic seat is in the 69th House District, where veteran Democratic Rep. David Shepard of Dickson is retiring. Three Republicans are competing for the GOP nomination, including Michael G. Curcio, who lost to Shepard in a tight 2014 race. There’s also a contest between two Democrats for their party’s nomination.

Durham, who last week was ordered to vacate his office in the Legislative Plaza by Harwell over concerns tied to sexual harassment allegations, is seeking re-election with three Republicans opposing him in the primary and a Democrat waiting to oppose the GOP winner.

Note: The qualifying lists are tentative with Division of Elections officials still going over the paperwork. And candidates can withdraw their petitions until Thursday. The full list of qualifying petitions for state and congressional campaigns is HERE.